North America celebrates 100 years of protecting migratory birds


One hundred years ago on 16 August 1916, the USA and Great Britain (on behalf of Canada) signed the first Migratory Bird Treaty to recognise the international importance of conserving and protecting migratory birds and their habitats.

Two years later in 1918, Congress passed the Migratory Bird Treaty Act to implement the legislation, which is still known today as one of the most effective conservation laws ever created.

This week, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), Refuge Association and numerous partners are working together to celebrate this historic achievement. It is estimated that this groundbreaking wildlife conservation treaty has now saved billions of birds.

In the late 1800s, the abundant migratory birds of North America were over-exploited and some of America's most iconic species, such as Passenger Pigeon and Labrador Duck, had become extinct. To help protect those species left, the first national wildlife refuge (NWR) was created in 1903 by President Theodore Roosevelt. With support from groups like the National Audubon Society, a movement was sparked that centred around bird conservation. Today, there are 565 national wildlife refuges and almost all protect habitat for migratory birds.

Migratory birds require a wide variety of suitable habitats on which to breed, winter adn stop-over for food at various points during the year. After the Migratory Bird Treaty was ratified, the US signed three international conventions with Mexico, Russia and Japan to protect migratory species across international borders, to increase international understanding and collaboration, and to unify conservation efforts.

National wildlife refuges have some of the best migratory bird spectacles in the world. for example, in spring, Forsythe NWR, New Jersey, attracts thousands of migratory birds such as (Red) Knot, various sandpipers, Sanderlings and Dunlins to feast on Horseshoe Crab eggs. Over 1,000 Bald Eagles call Klamath Basin NWR Complex, Oregon, home for the winter, which is the largest concentration of of the raptor species in the lower 48 states. Endangered Whooping Cranes migrate 2,500 miles south from Wood Buffalo NP in Canada to Aransas NWR, Texas, in the fall.

Whooping Crane
Whooping Crane (Photo: Tony Stewart)

Many of us are most familiar with the yearly migration of Canada Geese as they travel in a "flying-V" north and south. As individuals, we can contribute to the protection of all migratory species and these days you can find websites showing bird migrations on Doppler radar as it happens.

Migratory birds connect people to nature and provide significant ecological, economic, aesthetic and recreational benefits. $107 billion is spent on birdwatching equipment and travel in the US, and migratory bird hunting supports 66,274 jobs and contributes $7.3 billion to local economies. Migratory birds also play vital roles in the ecosystem where they pollinate plants, control insect and rodent populations and disperse seeds.

In the US, the Federal Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp — aka the "Duck Stamp" —  is a federal license required for hunting waterfowl that also provides free entrance into any NWR. Since its introduction in 1934, the Duck Stamp has leased or purchased over 6 million acres of wetland habitat for the NWR System. About 98 per cent of the funds support critical wetland habitat for wildlife. The Duck Stamp has been called one of the most successful conservation programs ever initiated.

"We are proud of what the United States, its partnering nations, organisations and supporters have done to protect our migratory birds and we look forward to another 100 years of continued success and collaboration," said Refuge Association President, David Houghton.

Throughout the week, the Refuge Association will be sharing awe-inspiring stories about migratory birds online highlighting their unique niche within our ecosystems and the actions that you can take to get involved.